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The White Russian by Vanora Bennett

It's 1937 and Evie leaves her home and controlling mother in the US to look up her estranged grandmother, Constance, in Paris. Constance is a mystery no one talks about so Evie is distraught when she dies soon after Evie's arrival. However, Evie chooses to stay for a while to discover more about her grandmother and carry out her last wish: to track down a mystery man from her past. Not only is it a difficult mission, it'll expose Evie to danger in a city harbouring fierce enmities from the Russian ex-pat community that Constance nurtured.

The White Russian by Vanora Bennett

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A novel of family drama, secrets and historical/political danger set against a side of 1937 Paris not often written about. This is one of those multi-purpose novels: absorbing while informative and a real page turner for a cosy evening in or that beach holiday.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: June 2014
Publisher: Century
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1780890043

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British author and journalist Vanora Bennett is in love with all things Russian including its history; a passion that was evident in her last book Midnight in St Petersburg. Russians are also central to The White Russian (I know - the clue is in the name!) set a little later than the peri-revolution era of Midnight…. However Vanora didn't need to go as far as Russia for her research this time; only across the channel to Paris.

As Vanora states in her excellent notes at the back, nearly 200,000 White Russians (those siding with the Tsar during the Revolution) fled to France after 1917. The French welcomed and then tolerated their presence but when one of their number assassinated the French president in 1932, they fell from favour and were left to fend for themselves. Add to this the Red (Bolshevik) Russians starting to infiltrate the Whites' organisations in a bid to silence and destroy them and it's safe to suggest that the Russian civil war continued to some extent on French soil. This is the world of espionage and danger into which Evie wanders as she visits her grandmother.

Evie is the innocent abroad and an excellent guide for us during her chapters (which alternate with those of the key protagonists). She may be fictional but General Miller (her Gran's close friend), Koblov (his rival) and the gypsy singer Nadya (Koblov's wife) are as historically real as the climax we plummet towards with heart-racing gusto.

Once again Vanora brings her experience to bear, remembering her time staying with Russian émigrés in Paris (although a lot more recently than the 1930s). Settings like Constance's salon, encouraging and feeding the displaced Russian literati, artists and aristocracy who had all seen better days originate from stories the émigrés told of similar patrons as much as the history that Vanora read. This, combined with Vanora's undoubted talent, explains the captivating power of her story telling.

We also learn about a lawless state within a state. France itself is relatively safe, although watching developments in Germany like the rest of Europe. However the Russian community live in fear more real than the paranoia of the Parisians after their president's death. Miller and Koblov have bodyguards as much to combat the dangers within as for those without.

There are a couple of moments of predictability in the novel but only round the edges. We know pretty soon who Evie will fall in love with, for instance. We also know from the teasers when trouble is brewing. However the key plot points can go either way, assuring us of a more than satisfying, page-turning adventure from an author who conjurers up alternative eras and locations with consummate ease.

(Thank you so much Century for providing us with a copy for review.)

Further Reading: If you haven't read it, Vanora's Midnight in St Petersburg is well worth a read. If you've read this and would like more fictionalised history about Russian conflicts, we also heartily recommend The Conductor by Sarah Quigley.

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